CBSN

Many Baghdad Treasures Intact

Civilians inspect Torah scrolls stored in the vault of the National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday April 12, 2003. Looters opened the museum vault and went on a rampage breaking ancient artifacts stored there by museum authorities before the war started.
AP
The U.S. commander in charge of securing the Iraqi National Museum told CBS Radio he saw few signs of looting after first entering the main gallery on April 16.

He rejected reports that the bulk of Iraqi antiquities in the national museum were stolen or broken during the war.

Capt. Jason Conroy recalls most of the large antiquities were protected by foam, and about 98 percent of the glass display cases were empty but not broken. He said Iraqi officials told him the artifacts had been stored in vaults underneath the museum itself.

"There were hundreds of those inside this storage vault, and it had been undisturbed," he said.

U.S. troops are still posted at the museum compound.

American investigators compiling an inventory of antiquities in the museum say that most of the 170,000 artifacts reported missing have been found.

The head of the civilian and military team, Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos said there was no sign of forced entry to five large vaults protecting the artifacts in the basement of the museum, but in once case, investigators found intruders had taken some less valuable artifacts from a storage room.

"I'm suggesting very strongly that only someone with intimate knowledge of both the museum and the museum's storage procedures could have even known where to look," Bogdanos said.

In one storage area on the second floor the investigators discovered evidence of Iraqi fighting positions inside the museum.

The reported pillaging of the museum was used in propaganda by both war opponents and U.S. Central Command.

War critics faulted U.S. troops and commanders for exposing the museum to looting while protecting other Baghdad facilities, such as the oil ministry. Central Command said the rampage in the museum was another example of Saddam Hussein's regime's disregard for Iraq's cultural resources — a theme of U.S. military rhetoric throughout the war.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told an Interpol meeting Tuesday that organized crime was involved in the looting of the national museum.

The comments came at a conference of art experts and law enforcement officials aimed at creating a database listing items looted in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"There is a strong case that the looting … was perpetrated by organized criminal groups — criminals who know what they were looking for," Ashcroft said, praising Interpol's efforts so far.

Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble said one of the group's top tasks was to collect and distribute descriptions of missing objects so they can be tracked down. He said such information was still sorely lacking.

"Right now we are operating only on rumors and anecdotal evidence," Noble said, adding that after the 1991 Gulf War, Interpol was able to log only one looted item into its database.

The two-day conference in southeastern France began Monday with presentations by officials from the U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Interpol, the State Department and university experts.

Iraq's museums held millennia-old artworks from the Assyrian, Sumerian and Babylonian cultures. Ancient Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq — was the cradle of urban civilization. Some experts fear thousands of pieces of art, including priceless antiquities, may be missing.

But the work of figuring out what's missing depends in large part on the condition of written inventories from the looted museum.

While the catalog at Baghdad's National Museum has been kept for the most part intact, the status of inventories at museums in other parts of Iraq is unknown. And experts say they have no idea of the looting toll at archaeological sites.

A British Museum official who recently returned from Iraq estimated on Monday that 30 to 40 antiquities from the National Museum in Baghdad — fewer than initially feared.

But John Edward Curtis also stressed that no one knows the status of 100,000 to 200,000 antiquities kept in storage, as well as an untold number of smaller, portable items that museum officials removed for safekeeping months before the war.

The work of compiling a database of missing objects also depends on outside lists, descriptions and photographs of Iraqi holdings. The British Museum, for example, has provided records of some Iraqi items suspected of being looted.

Interpol already has a database of 21,000 other stolen artworks that includes photographs and descriptions. Its 181 member countries have quick computer access to that information.

Interpol also publishes a CD-ROM for the private sector, prints posters of "most-wanted" stolen treasures and lists recent thefts on its Internet site.

The International Council of Museums is also putting together a list of categories of art objects — say, Mesopotamian vases — that dealers and law enforcement should be on the lookout for. Council officials were to consult with other experts at the Interpol meeting and at a separate gathering Wednesday to choose the most important categories to put on their "red list."

UNESCO is putting together a fact-finding mission to Iraq to assess damage to collections and work on ways to prevent further looting.

The United States, which has been widely criticized for failing to stop the pillaging, is helping to recover the missing art. The FBI is coordinating efforts with international law enforcement, and the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has begun radio broadcasts offering rewards for returned antiquities.